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SEASON'S CHEER
- Christmas now is more like the old pagan mid-winter festival

Christmas is upon us.
Christmas is upon us.

Christmas time again. The clich' is that it comes round quicker every year and so it seems as one gets older. As the New Year approaches too, I won't be sorry to see the back of 2005 and will look forward to a much improved 2006.

Increasingly, the celebration of Christmas here is becoming non-politically correct. We keep being told of offices and city councils who prefer to celebrate in less overtly Christian ways to avoid giving offence to religious minorities. In reality, and again it is a clich', most of us these days enjoy something more akin to the old pagan mid-winter festival, with an excess of good food and drink to get us through the dreary days of winter. We further celebrate with an orgy of shopping and present-giving that has less to do with the gifts of the three kings to the infant Jesus than the triumph of modern marketing techniques, particularly those directed at our own greedy infants. This year, as ever, the shops are crammed, and shopping for even essentials is almost unbearable unless done at two o'clock in the morning in the large all-night supermarkets, the most avaricious absorbers of our shopping cash.

The best, and probably most religiously and ethnically inclusive, Christmas I remember in recent times, was a few years ago when I lived with my family in Mumbai. That year my children had already celebrated Eid ul-fitr with Muslim friends; stuffed themselves with sweets during Ganapati Utsav in honour of Lord Ganesh; danced during Durga Puja; and burnt Ravan at Diwali. To celebrate Christmas too did not seem likely to offend anyone. Crawford Market was full of decorations and we even had a Christmas tree. Friends of all persuasions came to our Christmas feast with us that included a 25lb turkey; swept past airport customs in an enormous suitcase with a sack of Brussels sprouts and a huge supply of chocolates. The typically Christmas food was cooked and consumed with hefty doses of daal, rice and Nepalese momos on the side to cover all dietary requirements. Presents were exchanged, too much eaten and drunk, games played, photographs taken and a good time, I think, had by all.

Less good times here this year for the marketing men and the shops they promote, we hear. Full the shops may be but the customers are not spending their money with the anticipated profligacy. A promise of massive bonuses in the City of London, which has raised the prices of luxury housing in the capital and its environs, has not improved the spending capacity of people overall and they seem to be looking only for the increasing number of reductions on must-have gifts and Christmas party clothes. An unfortunate growth market as the years pass seems to be in excessive and horrendous outdoor decorations on private houses. They must at least gladden the hearts of the electricity supply companies as hundreds of coloured bulbs illuminate life-size figures of Father Christmas climbing ladders up to chimneys or landing brightly coloured reindeers and sleighs on roofs. I find it very easy to blame, as usual, our American cousins for yet another export of over-the-top vulgarity but I must admit, that they do it with a lot more style there than is displayed in every village cul de sac here.

The chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, added to disillusionment with the government and economic optimism in his budget report last week with his admittance, after years of bullish forecasting, that economic growth was likely to be closer to 1.75 per cent than his election-winning 3.5 per cent. Whoops, not quite Gordon's form to make downbeat announcements that directly reflect on him. Never mind, he did not hesitate to point out that he had things under his usual control and whatever the figures might suggest, things were going pretty well. His over-ebullient and somewhat hectoring manner, whatever his apparent successes, may not be considered desirable when Tony Blair finally passes the mantle of prime minister to Brown, his currently undisputed heir apparent. As the glitter wears off Blair, Brown's image too becomes a trifle tarnished.

Meanwhile we have another new Conservative leader and so far David Cameron's performance in the House of Commons, out of much the same mould as a younger Tony Blair but with added chutzpah, if less substance, has been sophisticated and articulate enough to gain him a following. He has none of the stature of Ken Clarke and is a typical contemporary politician, full of soundbite and snap. I cannot quite believe in such obvious performances, based on quickness of wit more than weight of content, but it may be enough to turn the Conservative lemmings away from a disintegrating cliff-edge and it seems, unfortunately, that a personable face on the television screen is worth more votes these days than a great mind. Interesting to watch events unfold as the prime minister looks older and greyer in comparison as each week passes and the chancellor simultaneously grows less attractive.

Ructions too among the Liberal Democrats ' poor old 'Champagne' Charlie Kennedy may be close to the end of that leadership road. I had imagined that alcohol was still his worst problem, but according to an elder statesman of the party, he just 'doesn't cut the mustard' and, on reflection, this is apparent in his rather half-hearted duels with the prime minister at Questions on Wednesday afternoons. There is a bevy of leadership hopefuls sniping at Kennedy, although, even after the improved Liberal showing in the last election, leading the party seems a less than highly desirable job. Perhaps the Liberal Democrat party is still full of people who, like its former leader, Jeremy Thorpe, have been saying since their school days that their one ambition was to lead a political party, any political party. Maybe memories of former glories still make the Liberal party a good enough place to fulfil latent schoolboy desires.

Not for the first time, during battles of party leaders and dreams of great prime ministers, I am, entirely and hopelessly, inspired by the figure of Peter Mandelson, now trade commissioner in Brussels and one of the few politicians of his generation who comes with political antecedents and a purely political mind. He may have been dubbed 'Prince of Darkness' with good enough reason, but my, oh my, there is a man who understands how things really work. His steady retreat from far left membership of the communist party, to his triumphant role as the major architect of New Labour, has been endlessly marred by his lack of popularity amongst his peers and a list of errors of personal judgment or behaviour. I doubt his future now will ever be in national politics; but as a world player, he seems on firmer ground and in global development, he may have found the niche for his aspirations and his workaholism.

Well, I had better stop the enjoyable and peaceful pursuit of writing about more distant events than the pre-Christmas chaos that surrounds me here and get moving; back to those horribly packed shops with my rapidly emptying purse; back to the gift-wrapping and the cooking for descending hordes of relations and friends. My view of shenanigans at Westminster is rapidly taking on a rosy hue of calm, peace and goodwill compared to the domestic uproar in the house as children return home for school holidays and my recently widowed mother-in-law arrives today, from her conveniently distant home in the North of England, to live with us. Happy New Year everyone and let us all hope for fewer disasters, greater joy, greater prosperity and greater peace in 2006.

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